San Francisco, CA.
I was having dinner with Nick the other night - Korean Mexican fusion. After his revelatory mushroom trip at Burning Man four years prior, Nick had recognized a spiritual side of himself that demanded answers. Nick wasn't used to having questions that can't easily be answered with a Google query. So he had turned to me.
I don't have all the answers. What I have are some ideas about the nature of consciousness, things I have gathered from various teachers: plants, books, people, dreams - things that feel true to me.
Nick was nodding along to my explanations until he asked, "So like, do you think it's possible for people like us, in tech, to achieve enlightenment? Instead of giving everything up and becoming monks, can't we build conscious businesses?"
When he asked this, I knew that I would have some tough explaining to do - tech bro to tech bro.
"No," I replied, "I don't think we can be more spiritual by building certain types of businesses. In fact I think it will be difficult for most of us here in San Francisco to become very spiritually realized."
I saw his eyes light up with indignation. The idea that spiritual mastery wasn't one more metric that could be optimized according to a known best practice was abhorrent to him. He was offended at the idea that he was spiritually disadvantaged because of his other life ambitions.
What I meant to say was that there's a difference between a penniless monk meditating on a mountainside and a Yale grad growing her user base so that she can save the world and also buy a Tesla. And yet there's also something they share. The techie can have moments when she catches a glimpse of unconditioned consciousness just as the monk, though perhaps not with as much ease or frequency.
"I'm sorry I said that. I want to explain to you, step by step, how I understand the nature of the self. I will even offer my best estimation of what happens to us when we die. And, I'm going to do all of that using a physics metaphor."
"So, metaphysics?" Nick suggested.
"Yes. I guess so. We can call it that." I pulled out a pen and drew something on my napkin.
"That looks like a pendulum." said Nick.
"Yes, that's what it is, and it's also you, me and everyone else in the world. On a spiritual level this is what we all look like."
"How do you mean?"
"That entire thing, from the ball at the end of the string, all the way up to the fulcrum it swings from, that's you. The part of you that's up there at the fulcrum is the part that's shared with everyone else- we are all swinging from this same central point and it's a part of all of us. At that level, there's no difference between me or you, or even that bottle of Sriracha over there."
Nick looked puzzled.
"Well, there is something that makes you uniquely yourself - that's what the ball represents. That ball is your ego, and it's the part of you that lives your life, experiencing things day to day. This conscious experience is represented by the ball's motion as the pendulum swings."
Nick was bothered by a missing detail in my metaphor. "With the pendulum in physics, gravity is the force that keeps it swinging. The ball and the string don't just swing on their own, it's the transformation of kinetic energy to gravitational potential energy and back that makes it go back and forth. Without gravity it wouldn't work."
I thought about it for a second and realized that there was a fitting equivalent for gravity in the pendulum metaphor, "For us, the forces that stand in for gravitation are our attachments. But it's not just a single attachment pulling down on us the way gravity does on earth. Each of the things we are attached to pull us in a different direction with varying degrees of force. The net of all these different forces is a pull much like gravity. It's that force that holds us apart from the fulcrum." I added to my drawing.
"This separation is what gives us our identity as individuals, but it's also the thing that creates the conditions for this endless swinging of the pendulum. As we move along this trajectory based on our desires, we are building up a sort of karmic potential energy, and at some point we'll have to swing back the other way. All that Buddhist stuff about how life experience is illusory, and attachments lead to suffering, this is what they are talking about. As long as we are stuck in that back and forth cycle, every joy will have it's pain and so forth."
"So, how do we ever make any progress?"
"The big trick we seem to be playing on ourselves is that as our pendulum swings, it feels like progress, but the only way we can actually change our trajectory is if we change our relationship to our attachments. To understand this let's add one more detail to the pendulum: the string is elastic, like a rubber band. So, the less force there is pulling the ball away from the fulcrum, the shorter the string will become."
Nick was starting to get excited. "If we can become less attached to things, it allows our ego to move closer to enlightenment! But what if I'm attached to something good, like meditation - how can you say that's pulling me away from the fulcrum?"
"That's a really good point. Attachments don't all pull us in the same direction. So relative to where we are, there are things we can attach ourselves to that will pull us closer to the fulcrum. It could be a person we love, a practice, or a particular teaching."
"So, would you say there are good and bad attachments?"
"They are only good or bad relative to other attachments that effect you. If you had shed most of your ego attachments, you would be pulled very close to the fulcrum, and the same practice that helped you get there could now be an attachment pulling you away from it."
"Ok fair enough, But why is getting towards that fulcrum such an important goal?" Nick wondered.
"You have to assume that the spiritual practice is about reaching that place. When we are there, we have this capacity for a kind of infinite empathy, a stillness and peace. Once you get a taste of what that feels like, you understand why trying to be that way more often, or even permanently, feels like a valuable goal." I sat back in my chair for a moment to contemplate. I still had a pile of chicken and rice on one side of my plate.
Nick had long since finished his dinner. He seemed concerned, "But if we are always swinging around, we're away from the fulcrum. How is it that we ever even get a taste of enlightenment?"
"Don't forget that there's a part of you that's connected to the fulcrum at all times. The issue is that even though you have a root in this peaceful realm, you don't actually feel that peace most of the time because your consciousness primarily resides in the swinging ball. However, even as our pendulum swings, there are points when it reaches the top of its arc, and the forces that move it cancel out. At that moment, the ball is still, just like the fulcrum, and the kind of intense presence that characterizes unconditioned consciousness can be felt."
Nick nodded, "Wow, yeah. I think that might have been what I experience during my mushroom trip. I can also see how for someone with less attachments, their pendulum would be swinging on a shorter arc, and they might have those glimpses more frequently," he seemed happy with this outcome. "But there's something else you mentioned earlier that I still want you to explain. How does the pendulum explain what happens when we die?"
"Not to seem morbid," I responded, "But this is my favorite part of the pendulum metaphor. I should mention to you that my understanding of what happens when we die is influenced by Buddhism. In that sense I see there being two potential outcomes of death, the most common one being that we reincarnate, and the other being that we break the cycle by recognizing and remaining within the realm of unconditioned consciousness.
"Here's how it fits into the pendulum. In a paradigm where we must learn to detach, death is the ultimate teacher. Whether we like it or not, it will pry every last bit of ego and attachment out of our clenched fingers. So imagine what would happen to the pendulum if you suddenly released all the forces that were holding the ball away from the fulcrum. Remember - the string is elastic."
"It would go flying in towards the the fulcrum, like when you let go of a slingshot," Nick replied.
"Yeah, exactly, and the further stretched away from the fulcrum it is in the moment when that tension is released, the faster it's going to fly inwards. That momentum will take us right where we want to be, and then some. We might see the light at the end of the tunnel, get there, and then before we realize what is going on, we've refracted back out the other side of it into the rainbow of colors that make up phenomenal existence. In other words - we've reincarnated." I tried to illustrate this on the napkin.
"That sounds... awesome. So you believe in reincarnation."
"Yes - that's what I think happens most of the time. And it's beautiful! Each of us is a unique prism that the pure light of being hits and dazzles out into all these artful manifestations. It's hard not to get attached to those manifestations. But even in their beauty and uniqueness, they represent yet another set of conditions for the cyclical swinging of the pendulum."
"So is the goal to not be reincarnated?"
"The goal is to recognize when you are passing through the realm of unconditioned consciousness, and just stay there. The more attached you are in life, the more violently you are going to be plunging through this realm, and the less of a chance you'd have to recognize it for what it is, and stay in it.
"Being willing to detach is as useful in the process of death as it is in life. As you are dying, the more you can allow yourself to surrender to the crumbling of attachments, the more slowly and peacefully you'll make your entry into the unconditioned, and the less likely you'll be to have the escape velocity that would send you out into another lifetime."
"It's just a theory. I mean who really knows what happens when we die or what it feels like," I concluded.
"I'm glad you told me about the pendulum," Nick smiled firmly, "It helps me visualize one way how it could work."
"Yeah, but try not to get too attached to it," I smirked as I crumpled the napkin.